An Old Tobacco Finds the Spotlight

VR BlendThere haven’t been new types of tobaccos on the pipe side of the business for a while. I don’t mean that there haven’t been new blends. I’m referring to types of leaf that go into the blends. The last one that comes to mind was the development of the main component of McClelland’s Royal Cajun series which is a fire-cured Virginia that is fermented the same way Perique is. So just about every strain or process we use in making pipe blends have been around for some time. The hub of new strain development has been on the premium cigar side of the business.

One of the tobaccos that has been around for a long time has found a new life in recent years – dark-fired Kentucky. This is a very interesting type of tobacco that’s used mostly in snuff and chew, but is also used in pipe tobacco, cigarettes and cigars. There’s some confusion about this leaf, for a couple of reasons. First, it is Burley or not? To tobacco growers, Kentucky is its own product, while they look at Burley as being white Burley, but to many in the trade it’s often referred to as dark-fired Kentucky Burley. Probably the best answer is that it’s a strain that’s similar to Burley, but it’s processed in a different manner. The second point of confusion is the name. Just because a blend contains dark-fired Kentucky doesn’t mean that the leaf actually comes from Kentucky, just that the strain of tobacco used is Kentucky.

This tobacco grows fairly large with thick, leathery leaves. They are harvested using the stalk-cut method, meaning that they plants are chopped off at the stalk and cured with the leaves still attached. This allows the remaining nutrients to migrate into the leaves. This is a very potent strain with a high nicotine content, which is part of the reason for the pepperiness. The tobacco is cured in barns that are sealed, or nearly sealed, with fires made of sawdust and/or hardwood slabs. I prefer the US produced product that uses hickory in the fire-curing. The distinctiveness of that aroma is incredible. When I was challenged to make a blend with a bacon-like quality, hickory-smoked Kentucky was the perfect ingredient. Other woods are used by different processors, so the aroma may vary.

Recently, Drew Estate and George Rico have made cigars with dark-fired Kentucky in them, but they’re not the first, not by a long shot. DeNobili and Parodi Toscano-style cigars have utilized dark-fired Kentucky for decades. Many European cigarette tobaccos are made with dark-fired as well.

Because of its potency, it’s usually used as a condimental tobacco in  most pipe blends that incorporate it. The legendary Balkan Sobranie 759 was purported to have had some dark-fired in the blend, which is why I used it in making BlackHouse, which was my entry in the Balkan Sobranie 759 Throwdown in 2011. Although it adds a spice element that’s welcome in Latakia-based blends, it works well with most tobaccos. Some well-known blends used this strain as the star. Orlik’s late, lamented Dark Strong Kentucky is the best example, along with Peter Heinrich’s Dark Strong Flake.

In the past few years, more blends have begun to use dark-fired, most notably Mac Baren’s HH Old Dark Fired. I currently use it in seven different Hearth & Home blends, and an eighth will be coming soon. Beside the intense flavor, it’s a very satisfying tobacco, but it needs to be smoked slowly or it can cause light-headedness or nic-hics.


About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at or by calling 1-800-494-9144.